Climate change influences on environment as a determinant of Indigenous health: Relationships to place, sea ice, and health in an Inuit community

Elsevier, Social Science & Medicine, Volumes 136–137, July 2015, Pages 17-26
Agata Durkalec, Chris Furgal, Mark W. Skinner, Tom Sheldon


This paper contributes to the literature on Indigenous health, human dimensions of climate change, and place-based dimensions of health by examining the role of environment for Inuit health in the context of a changing climate. We investigated the relationship between one key element of the environment – sea ice – and diverse aspects of health in an Inuit community in northern Canada, drawing on population health and health geography approaches. We used a case study design and participatory and collaborative approach with the community of Nain in northern Labrador, Canada. Focus groups (n = 2), interviews (n = 22), and participant observation were conducted in 2010–11. We found that an appreciation of place was critical for understanding the full range of health influences of sea ice use for Inuit. Negative physical health impacts were reported on less frequently than positive health benefits of sea ice use, which were predominantly related to mental/emotional, spiritual, social, and cultural health. We found that sea ice means freedom for sea ice users, which we suggest influences individual and collective health through relationships between sea ice use, culture, knowledge, and autonomy. While sea ice users reported increases in negative physical health impacts such as injuries and stress related to changing environmental conditions, we suggest that less tangible climate change impacts related to losses of health benefits and disruptions to place meanings and place attachment may be even more significant. Our findings indicate that climate change is resulting in and compounding existing environmental dispossession for Inuit. They also demonstrate the necessity of considering place meanings, culture, and socio-historical context to assess the complexity of climate change impacts on Indigenous environmental health.